As Timo Peach is selected to support TEDx Southampton 2020, in a first little introduction to his talk he asks: How will the pandemic generation interpret – and be remembered for – it's human to human contact? An Unsee The Future special.
A crisis will sort the grown-ups from the kids. It’s a generalism always intimated when you’re learning about yourself – you don’t know who you are until adversity finds you.
Will you turn out to be the sort who panics, or keeps a cool head in the crucial moment? Will you be someone to speak up or keep your head down? Well, click through the Twitter poll if you like but I think without question the biggest crisis for our collective generation is the one that all our other massive problems are happing within – the climate crisis. And, in the light of this, the hopey-changey progressive in me is tempted to say: “Yeah, damn straight it’s sorted the kids from the grown ups – the kids are taking us all to school about it.”
Before all we talked about was the pandemic, Generation Z seemed to have a strong sense of self about environmental stuff, galvanised by purpose. The biggest possible purpose – saving the world at the eleventh hour. But it’s not their only fight, is it? If even the brightest of globalising bubblegum culture K-Pop can sing lyrics like those of BTS: “Adults made this frame and we fall in to it”, children and young adults of the 2020s may be feeling pressures like no youth movements have experienced converging on them before.
When the lovely first lady of Momo and I felt challenged to cautiously join the Black Lives Matter protest nearest to us back in April, I sensed two things from the experience: A moment of new breakthrough for the story of race in white nations, and the first personal experience of feeling some sinister vibrations from friends on my timelines. While black and ethnic minority people across the white world will be quick to temper their temptations to hope in this moment, significant as it feels, and may even be bracing themselves for backlash, the stories of every day aggression, violence and prejudice that this movement elicited from many mixed race, black and asian friends on those timelines actually rather shocked me, as a comfy liberal white man who’s apparently done a shockingly limited amount of waking up and history homework.
But I admit to also being a little unnerved by the systemic disquiet vibrated subtly back to me about attending a march for black equality during a pandemic amongst my still mostly white family of friends – because it clearly touched an unconscious nerve that had nothing to do with the pandemic. The structural point being that they didn’t know they were doing it. But if this can spook me, at almost fifty, I don’t know what it’s doing to those on the direct receiving end all the apparent time who are young enough to be my kids and experienced enough to teach me how the world really is.
We all have a lot to wake up to at once. And there isn’t enough coffee in the world.
At the moment, that world is looking less and less like it knows how to make human connections. Despite all the lovely coffee shops. We are in a time unthinkable when I was 19 and watching the Berlin wall fall down, itself unthinkable until that shockingly hopeful moment; we are in a time of actually resurging nationalism and fascism. Refugeeism is an ancient human experience, but so is the scapegoating of others seeking desperate escape to lever political power. People seem quicker to condemn overflowing dinghies than superyachts.
But as Paul Mason writes, commenting on a week of British media and government appearing to do just that: “Anyone who thinks this is just a “normal” racist response is mistaken… As numerous political scientists have shown, everything in politics is now framed by “values”, not class identity and economic policy.”
Scenes in Belarus are disturbing amid this because it showing us naked fascist dictatorship in 2020 Europe; apparent scenes of frightened arrested young protestors on state TV contrasting with images of thousands in the streets around media black-out. The story of Belarus and Lukashenka is new to me, but it feels like part of the bigger picture erupting all around us – of old world big money trying to screw down everything, and of passionate alternative storytelling escaping around the edges.
Whatever motivating sense of history we choose to steer a course by if we’re young, leaving school, or early days in our adult voyage, below the choppy surface are the depths of complexity. And we’re all out in them now. Complexity may be the true watchword of all our times, and the thing we’re all most having to deal with psychologically. To switch to dryer metaphors, everyone of us is living at a busy intersection of car crashes.
Because the kids may be alright, but they’ve been raised in the same foundations as their parents, and are as mixed up and hypocritical as any normal human. Passionate about the things we see with focus, and not even seeing some things that are in our peripheral vision. School striking for climate change, but still terrified of the exams machine. Protesting fossil fuels but just as dependent on KFC or MacDonalds. Wanting racial equality but flocking to the beach before lockdown is over and leaving tons of trash, graffiti and human waste on someone else’s seafront.
Are we all too world-weary and knowish now? Fifteen or fifty? Too affected to dare to wonder: What marks am I making with my life, and how will future generations label me? Because I don’t think it will be with a hashtag.
In crisis, I’m not sure there is a “sort”. I think it’s terrifying dumb luck whether your wits are about you in a split second moment of decision or not. The difference, where one can make it, is likely found in something as boring as preparation. Knowing yourself, knowing your context, and doing a little personal prep work. Heroes have simply already packed their lunchbox.
As TEDx Southampton put out its call for speakers to represent the city’s place at the heart of South Central, I found myself thinking about that word Generations. The historic figures that loom largest in our imaginations tend to be those that had a very conscious sense of story about themselves and built around it intentionally. Collective ages that had a knack for theatre as much as engineering, and for the British the generation to loom largest over them may be the Victorians.
We are still living with their plumbing and transport infrastructure, after all. To say nothing of many other structurally determined legacies. And fancy latin labels.
While my country may be nationalistically fixated on the second world war, it’s principle hero figure was raised by the system refined and exported to grandest degree by those alive at the end of the previous century. Churchill fought in not just the First World War but the Boer War. He had an outlook drilled into him that hadn’t so much packed its lunch box as filled a wicker hamper and brought a wind up gramophone and cricket pads. A certainty of purpose could make flinty decisions about which people to galvanise, which to repulse and which to throw under the train of the story.
Two generations after both world wars, my own generation’s enlightened reaction to a dawning realisation about the failings of modernist promises, as well as imperial ones, was to ever so bravely adopt a wan enui about it all and quietly get on the property market hoping something more meaningful would just turn up for us. Except it didn’t. Our kids did. And they’re pissed off.
But are any of us alive now so different from each other?
The label my class seem happy to have adopted is Generation X. Named after Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book, I think people my age imagined we were being cute, supposing we were embracing reality by not so much consciously dropping out of the system as letting our eyes slip out of focus behind the MacJobs counter. Imagining we could write better poetry if we stepped away from the pressure of the yuppie dream and did what we’d now call Zero Hours work. Except I’m not so sure many of my peers did that. I think they still fancy the idea of a wine bar opening on their high street. Lord knows I know I do.
Who built the world we’re all dining out in? And who is building the one beyond us? I think, in a sense, we are all Generation X – Y Millenials, Zedders and Alphas alike, all continuing the indefinition of homogenous robot life in neo-liberal consumerism. Searching for the true definition of ourselves.Because re-reading my copy of the book, thirty years later, chilled me: It felt like so little has changed that I barely noticed it was a story written just before the internet existed.
But. Times are a-changing now. Can you not feel it? If you’re old enough to have bought Dillon’s song when it came out there, you might be relating to the vibe relation. As a 1980s teen, revulsed by anything 1960s then, I sure can feel the winds of change that the Scorpions were a bit off about in 1989, nearest thing to a moving anthem as that so cheesily is for someone my age. Something is in the wind. A storm is whipping up. Climates are shifting everywhere. We’re searching for genuinely new stories of us. Perhaps ones rooted in more ancient scales of futures. Wondering what we can build that will last half as long as some generations before us.
Which has prompted the centrepiece of my talk. A question that has me staring at the long scale of history from a sudden new perspective.
Is Generation X about to discover what its name stands for?
The magnificent Mayflower theatre TEDx Southampton 2020 is being carefully Covidly staged in couldn’t be a more inspiring setting of precenium oppulence for the arts, back when funding such things seemed vital, and they weren’t being lit red in an emergency of potential loss. While I myself am selected as an alternative speaker to the twelve scheduled for the day, I’m happy to walk through the process with them and let the theme challenge my own sense of purpose in making human connections. For it is stories that help us notice the details and make those connections across the generations, as my dear friend Michele O’Brien, storyteller and actor, put it to me.
As I look at the convergence of crises on us all today, I think we will all need to be practicing so many of the personal resiliences and character homework being explored across our speakers on November 11, if we are to respond to the complexity of our unique times with health and purpose. Because we are likely at a steepening curve point for culture conflicts. From the binification of us to a sort of consumer choice Angry Lego beliefs kit, where details of the story we think we’re in can change but intersectional angers can still be stoked sufficiently by players. But this sheer complexity could go anywhere. Around the world, dictators can topple as swiftly as they appear right now. The true divide may be between the seven billion and the few thousand, but in the swirl of our lives in events, we will have to demonstrate our own constancy. And courage.
It can be done. I think we live in oddly possible, formative times… if we don’t panic, but prepare. And there are always certainties in our histories and never in our futures – that’s how it works. That’s what every generation is called to face. But we will need firm human connections to make lasting choices.
Generation X – all of us – are being called to wake up. And we’re beginning to in different ways at different speeds about different things all around the old consumerist world. But what call will we each answer?
Answering the call and having a go and plunging into the woods is the only way to write any new stories of us. But it may also help us make much more deliberate marks on the world. Ones we’d rather be remembered for.